By Drew Ailes
By Joseph Hess and Mabel Suen
By Kenny Snarzyk
By Dave Geeting
By David Thorpe
By Ben Westhoff
By Shea Serrano
By Drew Ailes
As alt-country kingpin Robbie Fulks would be the first to tell you, he gets bored pretty easily. That's probably why it's so hard to describe his releases without liberal use of the word "diverse" or frequent reference to his breadth of influence. But depending on your musical proclivities and sensitivity to satire, Fulks is eclectic and clever on one side of the coin; random, mercenary and campy on the other.
Fulks just financed his own label, Boondoggle, with the money he received from the Universal buyout of his Geffen contract in 1999. He and his wife (Donna, his "enabler in chief") envision Boondoggle as an "artistic safeguard" against the pressures of the industry -- any industry -- that wants to prevent disruption of established fanbases. Because Fulks doesn't necessarily expect his fans to follow him to every future release, working from his own label allows him to experiment with idiosyncratic musical productions. It also means a dual function for Fulks, now both producer and distributor of his own work. The production end of things doesn't seem to give him pause; he's produced all but one of his own albums and obviously knows his way around the studio. Distribution, however, feels like a whole new venture. After shopping this new project around to the usual suspects, several of whom he says "offered the multirecord high-recouperable, low-royalty-rate deal," Fulks realized that the time was right. "We're gonna see how [distribution] goes," Fulks says. "The cost in every way of time and effort of signing one of those multirecord deals with a label, especially an indie label where there's such small justification for turning over that much of your life to them, in terms of the investment that they put into it ... the rationale is really thin."
His new release, Couples in Trouble, demonstrates another side of Fulks, one that harks back to -- well, to nothing, really, at least nothing from his own recorded past. Describing his use of "taboo tools" on the album, Fulks waxes downright philosophic: "I jettisoned the unconsidered certitudes and experimented with the methods. I messed with new narrative devices, nonrock and noncountry instruments, unorthodox guitar tunings, mixes of meters and tempos, digital software. Truly this was exhilarating, dangerously so. In fact, the thrill of the forbidden might have turned my music into unlistenable noise and me into a jabbering nutcase had I not clung to a few grounding absolutes. For instance, I believe, and I believe God believes, that songs are for everyone and should strive for a universal spiritual resonance. Also, I think songs should be catchy, memorable, hooky. Finally, the unifying conceit helped tether me: Three or so songs into the record, I saw that a loose lyrical theme -- pairs of humans versus the world -- could be imposed on the record to its overall advantage."
But what does all this fancy rhetoric tell us about Robbie Fulks? No, he didn't go to grad school; in fact, he dropped out of Columbia University without a degree. What it does tell us is that he thinks long and hard about what he does. The stories told by the album vary, as does the music Fulks tells them with, which oscillates from bluegrass, country, pop, rock and even four minutes of electronic noise. Nevertheless, these styles are sturdily bolted together to inflect and illuminate each narrative. The way Fulks explains it, even the four minutes of experimental music between the 10th and 11th tracks tell a story: the trip through the tunnel toward the light of the afterlife.
Couples in Trouble laces its unutterably sad scenarios with happy nonlite pop songs. "I think that a chirpy two-minute pop song, if it's well executed, can be as legitimate a comment on the intricacies of love and life as any other musical form," Fulks says. But the lingering impression is more intense than chirpy, as Fulks well knows. "The record is a rather dense presentation, and so I'll be bringing a show that will be different than usual, longer than usual and larger than usual." Because of the record's complexities, Fulks will focus on earlier material during live performances. "It's hard to pull off lots of those songs just for instrumental arrangement reasons," Fulks admits. "I can't take strings or horns on the road with me. So we're getting by with one extra guy, a keyboardist [Joe Terry] and a couple of little sampler devices to approximate some of the stuff."
Fulks' live performances are widely hailed as a raucous good time, so this decision seems well advised. He admits to being "scared of giving a dull show. Lots of times I'll go into a show thinking, 'Well, I'll do this and this and this ballad, and I'll pace them like this,' and then it's the actual event, and I'll just eliminate all but one of the ballads because I can't face going there when the time comes and there are excited drunk people in front of me who just want to dance. And really, the function of a concert is so different in my mind from the function of a record. In my mind, a record, I kind of picture myself playing for one person alone, wearing a pair of headphones in the middle of the night and concentrating. But in a concert, it's a social situation; people are drinking, and the attention span seems shorter."
Fulks has been known to apply his sardonic wit in the service of putting even his fans in place -- not for their drunken loutishness but for their elitism, their artificiality. Drawing crowds from the pools of National Public Radio listeners, alt-country cowpokes and Nashville aficionados, Fulks likes the array of personalities in his audience: "Sometimes there's a really odd and interesting mix, a human version of the Couples in Trouble record, which always pleases me because I hate to think that I'm going out playing for scenesters, representatives of this or that little movement. There are a lot of people who are really dedicated music fans in a superficial way, but they listen to music and evaluate it by entirely nonmusical criteria. With those scenesters, there's always an element of 'If it's too popular, if too many people connect to it, then it's not authentic anymore.'"
Undeniably, Robbie Fulks has a way with words. When this lit-geek asks whether he takes inspiration from literature, he discloses a penchant for Emily Dickinson: "In Nashville, nonrhymes mean a failure of imagination, but Emily Dickinson shows that it can be a deliberate gesture." The bottom line for Fulks is as simple as evolving as a songwriter, which, of course, requires diversification. "I just try to get better in every way as a writer," Fulks says. "If I didn't think I was improving, I would probably give up and do something else, and I think one aspect of that is cliché avoidance. When you're writing music, there has to be an element of cliché to it; the lyrics go by the listener at the tempo of the song, and you have to absorb it as you go by -- and you just can't do Emily Dickinson-style, thick writing when you're writing pop music. So there has to be some cliché, but I think my cliché bell goes off a lot quicker then it used to when I'm writing." Emily Dickinson aside, Fulks wouldn't mind scoring with an inadvertent market-pleaser: "I'd like to write a hit at some point and have it be on my résumé: 'One Diane Warren-type song.'"